Sidelined: How SEND parents have to fight to find childcare

Families have long struggled to find special needs childcare – and the fallout from the Covid pandemic has made the situation even tougher.

Lucy Baker


Lucy has tried out endless after-school and holiday clubs for her daughter over the years, carefully seeking out activities that her sporty child will love. But the staff never seem able to give her daughter, who has ADHD, the support she needs.

“We went through gymnastics, Taekwondo, athletics – and all of them after about a month or so just flopped,” says Lucy, pictured above, who has three children. “If I book my daughter into a class for my convenience, so I can work more, it just doesn’t work. It’s almost too much of a headache for me [to even try].”

Lucy, a freelance confidence coach, would like to work more – but without the right childcare it isn’t possible. She starts work at 10am, after driving her daughter to school, and from the late afternoon she’s busy again. During the school summer holidays, her work stops almost entirely.

“My whole work pattern works around her. I just had to act and change my work and my social life based on her needs,” says Lucy. She took on a staff role at one point, but it was too much to manage alongside her daughter’s condition.

The UK has a patchy and expensive childcare system for all families. Being able to find or afford nursery places for very young children, or holiday clubs for school-age kids, is often tough. But for SEND parents – those who have children with special educational needs and disabilities – the situation is even harder.

Only 21% of English councils have enough childcare for the disabled children in their area, according to an annual survey by the charity Coram Family and Childcare. This number has been stuck around the 20% mark for several years. When it comes to holiday childcare, the Covid pandemic has made a bad situation even worse – only 7% of councils have enough, down from 16% last year, a Coram report found in July. 

Over 70% of SEND parents say their childcare has not returned to normal since the pandemic, according to’s annual survey, which polled over 2,200 parents over the summer.

So, how did we get here?

Carer and child at Dingley's Promise specialist SEND nursery

“There’s been ingrained issues for a very, very long time,” says Megan Jarvie, head of Coram Family and Childcare. She points out that nurseries and other early-years settings can apply for council funding to help them take on a SEND child – but this process takes so long that, by the time the money comes through, the child is sometimes already off to school. 

Over 90% of early-years childcare settings have had to cover SEND costs out of their own pockets, while many others said that the state money they received was too little or was delayed, according to a survey this year by the Early Years Alliance. Meanwhile, holiday clubs for school-aged children have long struggled to find or train staff to support SEND children, partly as they run such short-term projects.

The Covid pandemic and its aftermath have caused further strain. Hundreds of nurseries have closed down during the pandemic and this year’s cost-of-living crisis. Those that remain are trying to support children with a range of developmental delays caused by lockdowns, as well as diagnosed SEND cases. Many school-holiday club have also shut down or are struggling to adjust to parents’ post-pandemic working patterns. 

And yet many SEND parents need the support and respite of childcare more than ever, after a pandemic where they often had to cope alone. “These last few months have undone years of work with my child and we have had to start at the beginning again,” one parent said in interviews carried out in 2020-21 for a government research paper.

“I’m absolutely shattered. No respite. Increased stress,” another parent said.

Constantly having to fight

Illustration showing raised fists and protest placards

In theory, SEND parents have the same childcare rights as any other family.

Mainstream nurseries and other registered early-years settings are meant to accept SEND children, unless they are already full or the child has particularly high needs, and then make arrangements to support them. Registered holiday clubs cannot charge higher fees for SEND children. Some families can also apply to their local council for an EHC plan, a legal document that sets out their child’s needs.

But, in reality, some SEND parents report that overstretched nurseries turn them away because they simply can’t help them. Others describe constantly having to fight with local councils for their child’s rights. This often leads parents to lose faith in the childcare system, and to feel that they have to stop working and look after their child themselves.

“A lot of families come to us because they’ve been turned away by others,” says Catherine McLeod, CEO of Dingley’s Promise, a charity that runs specialist SEND nurseries in south-east England (their nurseries are featured in the photos in this story).

“The worst-case scenario, and this happens quite a lot, is that parents go: ‘You know what, early-years settings can’t cope with my child, I’m going to keep them at home until school.’ ” 

Faced with endless applications, conflicting information, and the stress of putting their child through trial-and-error, it’s inevitable that many parents stop trying to find care. Lucy has tried several clubs for her daughter, and has tried to explain her child’s condition to staff in advance. She has given schoolteachers a bullet-point list of tips for managing her daughter’s restlessness. But she feels like no one listens.

“You just kind of give up,” Lucy says about out-of-school childcare. “It never felt available to me, so I just muddled on through and gave up and did it all myself.” 

Reasons to be cheerful

Carer and child at Dingley's Promise specialist SEND nursery

The situation can feel hopeless – but there are several measures that would change things for the better. For nurseries and other early-years settings, making it quicker and easier to get funding would be a huge boost, says Jarvie at Coram.

“It’s about…recognising that childcare providers are not like schools,” she says. Instead, these providers are often small businesses that “can’t run at a loss, with the idea that they’ll receive that funding further down the line”.

All early-years staff should also have some SEND training, rather than this being an optional extra, says McLeod at Dingley’s Promise. Her charity is campaigning for childcare workers’ minimum qualifications to include a SEND module. Dingley’s also won funding last year to start delivering its own training course in “inclusive practice” to 30,000 early-years staff.

When it comes to holiday and after-school clubs, Jarvie says that activities that take place on the school site often do well with accommodating SEND children. The school site is already set up for children with different needs, and the school staff who already know those children can brief whoever is running the club.

Last month, Lucy finally found a swimming class where her daughter seems calm and happy. Lucy is used to these things suddenly changing, and the class isn’t childcare that would allow her to work, but it still feels like a big step. Her husband continues to work from home post-pandemic and can help more with childcare than previously, especially in the mornings.

“You know, she’s such a cool kid. She’s so likeable,” Lucy says of her daughter. “My job a lot of the time, as a parent, is helping people to understand what she’s going through.”

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